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Thursday 19 August 2004

You Don’t Know Who Your Customers Are

Customer-Service Rule #15 is: Customer-profitability accounting is almost totally inaccurate. This means, broadly, that you almost certainly don’t know how profitable a given customer of yours really is, and when you figure that you can afford to give a customer the shaft rather than solve your problems, you can’t be sure what this is going to cost you.

Gizmodo is a weblog for the gadgetrati, edited by one Joel Johnson. Today Joel wrote a glowing review of the Sidekick II, a mobile-phone-like device sold by T-Mobile. He was effuse in his praise for the device. No, ‘effuse’ and ‘praise’ and ‘glowing’ are not strong enough terms. He says:

I’ve just spent a week using the T-Mobile Sidekick II, and I think it’s probably one of the best mobile devices I’ve ever used.

That’s what everyone wants to read at the head of a review of their product, I’d imagine. But Johnson goes on in the next two sentences:

And I can say, with total conviction, that I will never, ever purchase one and neither should you. In fact, after the experiences I’ve had today with T-Mobile, I’m not sure I can ever recommend one of their products again.

Why? Because of a classic customer-service failure. He writes, in part:

So for the last three months, I’ve been going back and forth with T-Mobile trying to get my service working and my account to where it should be. Everything seemed to be fine, after about eight or nine separate phones calls - I had the second line I wanted, there was a slight billing error that was being looked into, but service was happening and they would let me know what was up with the overcharges.


When I called and reached a rep named Patty, I explained what had happened - something I always have to do, despite asking many times for it to be noted properly on my account - and after about an hour was able to finally reach the resolution that the overcharges on my billing would be removed. Keep in mind that this is after she had told me that she would be willing to credit back about a third of them if I “admitted and understood that T-Mobile had done nothing wrong in this matter.” Of course, I told her that was rank bullshit, and pressed on. Finally, after speaking to her manager she was able to get approval to make a one-time charge. Already pissed, I asked her, “So are you saying that in this case, T-Mobile was actually wrong?”

“I’m not saying that, sir, but I’m not saying you were wrong, either.” […] I had finally gotten everything taken care of.

Until I tried to use my phone. It was still off, so I called T-Mobile again, not twenty minutes after hanging up with Patty the first time. Long story longer? There was no notes from Patty about giving me a credit. She lied to me. The refund - the one she calculated the taxes for - was a lie. She even made notes on my account indicating that she’d tried to placate me, but ultimately I was inconsolable.


And if it were even one lie, and one screw up… I ignored this for three months, giving them chance after chance to make it better. To continually screw it up, inconvenience someone who was just trying to use their service, who paid bills early is just incredible, and is indicative of an overarching deficit of concern throughout the entire company that I’m finally starting to recognize. I’m used to shitty service - I am an American, after all - but this has been so beyond the pale that I can’t justify using their service any longer, nor can I in good faith recommend them to anyone else.

The last person I spoke to was nice, and wanted to let me know how much he sympathized with me, but ultimately said he was powerless, and that in this instance - and I made him verify this to me, repeat it back so I could make sure I heard it - he had to trust T-Mobile over me. My only recourse, he said, was contacting Customer Relations via email and hope they got back to me with some resolution. No one within Customer Care - the people you can speak to on the phone - had any power to resolve my problem.

My mobile phone is through T-Mobile, too, and I’ve had pretty much the same experience. I would already have fled T-Mobile for another carrier, as it happens, were it not for the fact that none of the other carriers have offered phones that meet my needs for the past year or two.

And here’s the thing: every single dispute I have had with T-Mobile has resulted, after many hours on the phone, in everyone being in total agreement about the problem, everyone agreeing what needed to be done to solve the problem, and then T-Mobile saying that they could not do what was necessary to solve the problem. Furthermore, in every case this has been due to some procedural roadblock on the T-Mobile side, a procedural roadblock that nobody, it seems, is authorized to circumvent. Their official policy seems to be that they would rather have dissatisfied customers than take zero-cost steps to make their customers happy.

It might be interesting to see what T-Mobile does after this. Joel Johnson isn’t Walt Mossberg, and Gizmodo is not the Wall Street Journal. That said, it’s fairly influential among the kind of people who want to read, daily, about what new gadgets are available. These people tend to spend more on gadgets than the average bear, and it can hardly be good for T-Mobile’s business to have its approach to customer service exposed to them like this.

Posted by tino at 15:40 19.08.04
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The thing is most people who have already resigned themselves to incredibly poor service from so many providers (of cell phones, regular phones, cable TV, fast food, etc.) that the bar has been lowered so low that the various companies don’t see much use in improving customer service. It is also worth noting that in a service like cell phones the barrier to entry is pretty high and all the providers suck at customer service to one degree or another so they have little to fear from each other or anyone new to the market.

Posted by: Paul Johnson at August 19, 2004 04:41 PM

I humbly present for your perusing amusing a short bit I;ll call

The Customer Service Side of Things

otherwise entitled

Being Powerless Sucks

I feel for Mr. Johnson. I deal with customers like him every day.

The problem is this: Customer service representatives are not hired to do the job that most people think they are hired to do. Most people think, “I will call customer service and they will solve my problem.

NOTHING could be further from the job description of the average CSR.

CSR’s are hired to politely do basically thre things that are routine:

  • Handle information changes: addresses, phone numbers, married name, death, adding and deleting services.

  • Take payments and give you the same information that most automated tellers and the piece of paper you get every month called a bill can tell you: the amount of your last bill, the amount you paid, and what the amount of the new bill is.

  • and Lastly,

  • Handle complaints.
  • NOW, number 3 is a big one, but you must understand that I took great care in using the word “HANDLE” instead of the word “RESOLVE”.

    The average CSR is NOT given the POWER to do more than the most basic and trivial of changes to your account regardless of what service industry or product you’re referring to. When it comes to complaints, any CSR’s can eventually figure out

    a) what the customer is complaining about

    b) how to fix the problem and make sure it never happens again

    c) make the customer happy

    Unfortunately, most companies do not want to make the customer completely happy. They want to make sure their customers are profitable.

    The average CSR would give any customer whatever they want in the way of credit, free service, a trained monkey and whatever else it will take to simply get them off the phone. And if solving their problem is a side effect, then all the better.

    However, most companies, are not willing to part with a customer’s cash if they can help it.

    Hence you have every CSR in America in the same boat that Mr. Johnson describes. Understanding thoroughly and powerless to do anything about it IMMEDIATELY.

    Ah, there’s the rub. That single word. IMMEDIATELY. I put in all caps, because that’s how it’s usually said to me: I WANT WHAT I WANT AND I WANT IT IMMEDIATELY.

    Most companies have departments that (shockingly) deal with different things. Your average CSR, will do the following.

  • Listen to the customer’s problem
  • Decide upon a course of action
  • Relay to the customer the next steps or the next department that must resolve the problem
  • In most cases the CSR then spends another two hours answering the question: But you’re on the phone right now. Why can’t YOU solve my problem IMMEDIATELY.

    And so it goes.

    Mr. Johnson, however, is brilliant in the fact that he seems to realize the customer service reps, far from being unreasonable, not only understand his problem and would be willing to help if not for some obscure company policy that keeps them from unfairly doing so.

    And he’s doing the best thing I’ve ever seen any customer do: Going after the company instead of shooting (or screaming at) the underpaid messenger.

    Maybe companies (especially my unnamed own) will come across this and take the hint that empowering their employees instead of hindering them is the profitable and right thing to do.

    Mr. Johnson, you have my full support.

    Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at August 19, 2004 07:39 PM

    I recently had a hell of a time with my new ISP. I’ve also had a tough time with a home warranty co. and a blood testing lab / health insurance co.

    With the last one (which was a dispute over a bill) I actually ended up having to get both the blood lab and my insurance co. on the phone, at the same time. It took three tries to get them on 3-way, because the reps kept hanging up! They did get it sorted out though.

    My current idea is to rig up a digital voice recorder (with an old modem/answering machine) and ask the reps if I can record THEM. If you get permission, you should legally be able to use it as evidence in small claims court, if it comes to that. After all, THEY are recording YOU “to monitor customer service” Once you file papers in small claims, the cost of resolving your dispute jumps an order of magnitude. (giving you an ace in the hole)

    warning- IANAL

    It costs money to answer phones with reps, so why don’t more companies realize that when you get it right the first time you get happy customers who pay their bills and don’t call?

    Posted by: steel at August 19, 2004 08:31 PM

    Maybe companies (especially my unnamed own) will come across this and take the hint that empowering their employees instead of hindering them is the profitable and right thing to do.

    I don’t even really have a problem with companies’ limiting the power of their first-line employees; as you say, a lot of them would give away the store. The problem is when these companies don’t give anyone the power to do anything at all. These policies are put in place by people who never, ever have any contact with customers or with their own company’s products.

    I once worked somewhere — a big long-distance company with three letters and no ampersand for a name — and they actually maintained two customer-service operations for their proprietary e-mail service: one for paying customers, and another, smaller but much better-trained and more-empowered — for their own company executives who used the service. The fact that it would even occur to them to do this speaks volumes about the emphasis (or lack thereof) placed on customer satisfaction there.

    I understand fully that these companies have to make money, and that sometimes this might mean making a customer less than 100% happy. If someone wants to buy dollar bills from you for seventy-five cents, that’s business that you can afford to lose. Today’s story from Gizmodo, though, shows the dangers of adopting a corporate strategy of making it difficult to do business with you: do it often enough or just to the wrong people, and word will get around.

    All of that said Paul does have a point in his comment: it’s not as if anyone is even attempting to compete on customer service in the mobile-phone market.

    Posted by: Tino at August 19, 2004 08:37 PM

    My current idea is to rig up a digital voice recorder (with an old modem/answering machine) and ask the reps if I can record THEM.

    My cell phone can record calls, and I’ve been planning to start doing this. I have no intention of suing these people or anything like that; I just think it would make an interesting addition to the website. This week, I had a particularly good one when it turned out that one of my banks had completely failed to make a change to my account — a change I went in to make in person, and so I can’t cash in a mature CD over the phone. This will wind up costing me some money when I cash in the new, automatically-rolled-over CD early. Thanks, U.S. Bank!

    The problem is that my phone has quite limited memory, and the best calls involve a lot of time spent on hold. It could be edited down later, of course, but I don’t have enough memory to record the entirety of most of these calls in the first place.

    One of my absolute requirements for my next phone is the ability to add a lot of memory.

    Posted by: Tino at August 19, 2004 10:00 PM

    When I got the DSL line, it was bundled with an analog POTS line. The modem/answering machine system would let you take nearly unlimited length recording, and have them converted to mp3’s that you can access via FTP or have mailed to you. Perhaps you could just 3-way call into your POTS line and start the recording with a sequence of touch tones.

    I’m really wondering what the reaction of the service drones will be when they know I’m recording and retaining what they say.

    Posted by: steel at August 20, 2004 08:25 PM

    I’m really wondering what the reaction of the service drones will be when they know I’m recording and retaining what they say.

    Even more spouting of exact company policy instead of actual help. This way they may even be wrong, but as long as it’s in their policies and procedures, they’re justified as having done their job.

    Posted by: Deborah Nesbit at August 22, 2004 01:15 AM

    Me, on phone to my ISPís help line, trying hard not to spew forth a stream of curses: ..so let me get this straight, even though I have had a dial tone and DSL from your company for the last two weeks, because my cell phone number isnít yet ported over to my new landline yet, you are saying that I am not a customer of you company, so you canít do anything to help me restore my service, right? Clueless rep: Thatís correct sir. Me: But, If I were to cancel my service right now, or cancel, and re-order new service, without porting a number from another carrier, you would be forced to charge me an early disconnect fee? Clueless rep: Yes, sir, but if you canceled and then reordered, Iíd have to also charge you a new connection feeÖ.

    You know, Iíd pay good money to have this conversation on tapeÖ

    Posted by: at August 23, 2004 12:53 PM


    Since the start of our service in August we have had nothing but problems with T-mobile. I have had only 2 pleasant experiences with Tmobile and they were with your reps in Canada. You have rude,rude,rude employees. Terrible management that is also rude. But that is not why I am writing to you. On November 9th 2004 I called 611 from my phone to get to the bottom of my bill and still no resolution. It was also brought to my attention that “easy pay” has been added to our account and when I asked how that might have been done the response from Sonya # 3828729 was that it was automatically added. I was quite shocked when she told me that. She also told me that it got mistakenly added when I used the automated system on September 13, 2004 I have never to my knowledge used your automated system; I like to talk to a human and know what is going on. This was very interesting to me because I was having a baby and in the hospital on September 13 2004. This is all very interesting to me. I certainly hope that this gets dealt with in a timely manner. If this is not handled in a timely and professional manner and gotten to the bottom of this then I will have to take further actions. This is theft and was NEVER authorized. I would like more than anything to be let out of our contract and to also return our phone that we purchased from tmobile and be reimbursed for it since we will not be using tmobiles services. The next step from here will be legal. If this is not gotten to the bottom of.

    On top of your rude employees and terrible management when I was asked for a phone number for someone at your corporate office or for someone that would be able to handle this (and not at a call center management level) i was only given a fax number for customer care and was told that she could not give me a number for corporate. I am sick and fed up with all of this.

    Posted by: NIKKI at November 9, 2004 05:04 PM

    I have to say that this is quite different from my experiences with T-Mobile. The entire structure of the U.S. cell phone industry screws customers (and, I believe, the phone companies as well, but they don’t seem to realize this): it’s all about keeping customers by locking them in rather than by making them happy. In this T-Mobile is no better or worse than any of their competitors.

    Once you factor that out, though, I’ve been pleased with their service, particularly as they seem to have a better grasp on the value of various services, and thus more sensible pricing. (This praise doesn’t apply to their extortionate rates for overseas long-distance or roaming.)

    In particular, the T-Mobile phone support people I’ve dealt with have all been conspicuously friendly — though not helpful because T-Mob’s policies and procedures appear to give these friendly and intelligent people no power to actually do anything.

    Posted by: Tino at November 9, 2004 06:21 PM